So, why did I become a science writer? Earlier I wrote about what started me on the road to writing planetarium shows. But those weren’t my first published stories about science. The roots of my fascination with space and astronomy stretch back to my early childhood. I remember my dad taking me out to see the stars, which kindled something in me. We had books around with pictures of Saturn, which to me seemed like the strangest place in the universe. Later on, after the first successful space missions, I was mad to be an astronaut. Until I could grow up to become one (a goal I’ve not yet attained), we played games like “Mars Exploration”—featuring an alfalfa field, a cardboard box, and the active imaginations of several little girls and long afternoons of playtime in which to explore. (By the way, that game eventually became part of a planetarium show I wrote for the National Air and Space Museum’s Einstein Planetarium in 1996).
So, Mars was probably the first world I “explored” and it’s been with me ever since. My science writing career began, however, when I covered the Voyager/Saturn encounter in 1981 for my employer at the time, The Denver Post. I spent a week at JPL in Pasadena, California, mingling with other science writers, meeting the mission scientists, and marveling at the amazing images flowing back from the distant spacecraft and its planetary target.
But, Mars crept back into my consciousness a couple of years later. In 1984 was invited to attend a meeting called “The Case for Mars”—a sort of underground gathering of scientists who wanted to spur exploration of Mars. The Red Planet had sort of been “off the table” since the Viking missions and the NASA budget cuts made it look less like a target. So, these scientists wanted to keep Mars exploration on the table. For several days I attended meetings and talks that discussed some of the forerunners of recent Mars missions: Pathfinder, Mars Global Surveyor, and the rovers. The goal was to layout the steps toward a manned mission to Mars sometime early in the 21st century.
That experience, and attendance at other Case For Mars meetings sent me back to school, ostensibly to study planetary science. I spent several years at the University of Colorado soaking up courses in astronomy, space science, and planetary science. All the while, I kept writing, took up lecturing at the planetarium, and worked as a comet researcher in one of the University’s labs. Eventually I also joined an HST instrument team, and wrote my first book about HST with co-author Jack Brandt.
Finally I decided it was time for graduate school, and then I ran smack into a dilemma I thought I’d never encounter: what to study. I really wanted to study astrophysics or planetary science, but the job market was discouraging, as were the prospects of getting into graduate school in those areas. But, even if jobs had been waiting and I could have chosen any program, there was another issue: I was really enjoying the life of a science writer. It allowed me to explore any issues I wanted, ask any questions I wanted, and get a panoramic view of the science areas that interested me. It was a tough choice: specialize in science or specialize in writing about science.
Ultimately, I chose to work toward a masters’ degree in science journalism. I got to keep my research job AND I could explore better ways to communicate science. It was perfect and I loved every minute of the intellectual challenges my situation presented. And, I have always held out the possibility that someday I’d go back to school and take that doctorate in planetary science—fulfilling that desire to explore Mars, in mind if not in body.
So, here I am, a science writer, pursuing understanding in the areas that interest me most, and sharing that understanding with others. It’s a fun ride!